Darling claims Sturgeon is bluffing with indyref2 bid

Alistair Darling has said he does not believe Nicola Sturgeon will trigger her indyref2 bill because she knows that if she holds another referendum she'll lose.

Alistair Darling said that now is not 
the time to re-establish an 
anti-independence campaign. Picture: Dylan Martinez/Getty
Alistair Darling said that now is not the time to re-establish an anti-independence campaign. Picture: Dylan Martinez/Getty

The former Better Together leader suggested last week’s draft referendum legislation was a bluff when he said the First Minister did not want another vote “any time soon”.

Last week the prospect of a second independence referendum was put on the table when Sturgeon published legislation which could potentially see a date called next spring and a vote staged in 2018.

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The First Minister has argued that independence must be an option to protect Scotland’s relationship with the EU following the Brexit vote.

Last week’s legislation was produced to give her the ability to call a re-run of the 2014 vote before the UK withdraws from Europe in just over two years’ time.

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Speaking for the first time since the indyref2 bill was published, Darling also accused the First Minister of using a referendum as a “smokescreen” to distract from the challenges the Scottish Government faces in health, education and justice.

“I think everybody knows that if she thought she could win a referendum now she would hold a referendum tomorrow,” said the former Labour chancellor.

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“All the evidence is that public opinion hasn’t changed much since 2014, and one thing that is very clear is that a majority of people don’t want a referendum any time soon. All the time we are discussing referendum bills, there is a whole generation of young people missing out on the education they need, the health service has got major problems, the problems of Police Scotland haven’t gone away.

“Talking about the constitution is a great smokescreen for everything else going on. I don’t think she will hold a referendum any time soon because she doesn’t think she can win it. So why not get on with what she was elected to do and govern Scotland?”

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The publication of last week’s “Consultation on a Draft Referendum Bill” has led to concerns being raised about the lack of activity on the No side of the argument.

People close to Better Together last time round are growing increasingly frustrated that there is not enough work being done to create an effective campaigning outfit in case Sturgeon pulls the trigger.

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Among the concerns are the reduced state of the Labour Party machine and the lack of an obvious candidate to succeed Darling.

The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson would be one candidate. But despite her personal popularity, most believe her association with a Tory brand which was once so unpopular in Scotland counts against her.

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Labour “big beasts”, such as Darling, appear to have departed the scene, leaving a gaping hole when it comes to finding a suitable figurehead capable of taking on a Yes campaign which will once again be dominated by a battle-hardened SNP machine and with Sturgeon at its head.

Scotland on Sunday understands that tentative discussions are being held by people close to Better Together, with one saying it was time to “wake up” to the challenge posed by the referendum bill.

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The non-party Scotland in Union organisation has been holding events as it attempts to recruit people to the pro-UK cause.

Many close to Better Together believe emphasis should be on fighting against holding another vote rather than reforming Better Together.

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Darling said it was not time to re-establish a No campaign. He said: “I am very clear that we were told this was a once in a generation decision two years ago, so it is. Remember, the decision was far more decisive than the European referendum if you look at the margins. It is time people said to the SNP, ‘It is quite clear you don’t think you can win.’ People don’t want another referendum.”

When asked if he would return to lead the No campaign in a second referendum, Darling replied: “I don’t think it is an issue, because I don’t think there will be a referendum any time soon. One thing that unifies me and Nicola Sturgeon is that neither of us wants one any time soon. I don’t think she does.”

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Last night Sturgeon’s spokesman insisted that a second referendum was not an idle threat.

“We are delivering on the day job, which is why people re-elected the SNP so overwhelmingly in May,” the spokesman said.

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“But Alistair Darling is wrong. The First Minister has made it crystal clear that she is absolutely serious about doing whatever it takes to protect Scotland’s interests, and that includes the  option of independence if it is the best or only way of doing so.

“He is also wrong about support for independence - every poll since the 2014 referendum has shown backing higher than it was then. And if the Tories continue to act against Scotland’s interests then that support will grow further still.”